Writing fiction is one of my favorite hobbies, but I have learned to write, almost entirely, by reading, only quite recently have I begun to study specific writing techniques, and it has proved an intriguing subject. One piece of advice puzzled me exceedingly. It was a minor point in an article, written by an editor, intended to help amateur writers avoid common mistakes. For me, however, it sparked a month long quest for understanding, and as I continued to read I found the same advice repeated in many different sources, sometimes more or less emphatically, but always recognizable.
The advice was this: avoid adverbs and adjectives, in general; but especially avoid the word ‘very’ and words that end with ‘ly’. For, apparently, it is really, very, painful for editors to read pages sprinkled with these excruciatingly annoying words. In all seriousness, however, I do understand the editorial dislike for ‘very,”rather,’ and other such bland words, which weaken a sentence without adding useful or interesting description. But why, why should my characters never speak kindly, run swiftly, or eat ravenously? I love playing with words, and I admit, it was very depressing to be told that there were whole parts of speech which should never be used in fiction. But it was not simply distasteful, it was logically unfathomable; and for the very reason that I could not understand it, I also could not dismiss it. I finally decided to try it out, hoping that it would become clear through practice.
For several days I ruthlessly tore my beloved adverbs from their places, and replaced them with anything else which could do the job. It seemed terribly wasteful, for I often had to replace the one word with five others in order to give the same picture. ‘Picture’: that was what made it finally click. One evening I wrote the sentence: “she looked up and smiled slightly.” Upon realizing that I had an adverb on my hands I changed the sentence to: “She looked up and the corners of her mouth twitched.” For a moment I looked at the sentence in disgust, and then, quite unexpectedly, it made sense, beautiful, logical, sense. The difference was the position of the reader. Was I telling the story? Or was the reader there, seeing it? When we see someone smile, we do not mentally label it as slight or otherwise, we only describe it as such when we recount the event to ourselves, or someone else. Of course I am telling the story, but as a general rule I want the reader to forget that. Thus, I realized, the warning against adverbs was actually nothing more than an application of the general, show, don’t tell, rule. The goal was to pretend that the reader saw the action, and describe it accordingly, to give them a picture.
Looking back on my confusion it is difficult to understand why it took me so long, it seems so simple, perhaps it was due, in part, to my stubbornness and the fact that I have never accepted the show, don’t tell, rule. However, my new understanding of this point has opened up wonderful possibilities for speculation, and I heartily thank the editorial advice for goading me into a better understanding of the consequences of my words.